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the yay to the nay

Back-to-Preschool Clothes Shopping: The Yay to the Nay

By Ilana Wiles

the yay to the nayThis post was an undertaking because when it comes to shopping for my two-year-old’s clothes, I normally go to one store, buy a season worth of stuff and call it a day. But for the purposes of this post, I tried five different stores, shopped almost exclusively online and worked with a budget of $50 at each one.

I found the $50 budget per store really tough and in the end, I don’t recommend shopping around for your preschooler. It’s much easier to buy a crapload of clothes at one reasonably-priced store and then supplement with a few special items elsewhere. Plus, you will spend way less money if you don’t know everything that is out there.

So, I will be highlighting what I bought for my $50 budget, but also telling you what you can get for around $150 at each store, in case you want to do all your shopping in one place. Make sense?

Please keep in mind, I was shopping for a soon to be three-year-old girl so all items were picked according to her (and my) taste.

I will be judging the purchases on quality, style/selection, price and online shopping experience.


1) Old Navy Kids

back to school toddler clothes shopping

Old Navy is a great store for basics at extremely reasonable prices. The clothing is not of the highest quality out there but it is certainly sufficient for a toddler who will be wearing it all of one season. Plus, we plan on passing several of Mazzy’s Old Navy clothes down to her soon-to-be little sister (less than 3 months away!) which is in perfectly good condition after tons of wear. The clothing always feels trendy without being too overdone, comes almost exclusively in cotton materials and is perfect for active play.

A large portion of Mazzy’s wardrobe always comes from Old Navy, but this was my first experience shopping online. I found it incredibly easy to navigate, especially since it is linked up with Baby Gap so you can shop for them both at once in one cart. You can buy your kid’s entire back-to-school wardrobe by combining the two shops— basics from Old Navy and peppering in a few items from Baby Gap.

For my budget of $50, I was able to get 5 items. I bought the Paris t-shirt ($8), the black and white striped leggings ($9), the pink striped dress ($11), the red pants ($10) and the t-shirt with the bow on it ($13) for a total of $51. (Had I used a $150 budget just there, I would have gotten the 12 pieces above).

Quality: YAY
Style/ Selection: YAY
Price: YAY
Online Experience: YAY

2. Baby Gap

back to school toddler clothes shopping

Next, I shopped at Baby Gap since I could so conveniently share the same online shopping cart with Old Navy. Although the quality is consistently very good, I find Baby Gap to be hit or miss as their style changes drastically from season to season and it’s super specific. At the moment, it is a lot of leopard print which I find really ridiculous looking on a toddler. They also seemed to have a lot of dresses that looked more appropriate for your first day at the office than your first day of preschool. (I didn’t reflect those clothes above because I am only featuring items that I considered purchasing.)

The online experience was great— everything was easy to find and loaded quickly— but there were ultimately not a lot of items I was interested in that were worth the price differential from Old Navy. But I caveat this with saying, I could walk into Baby Gap a month from now when the style will have changed and I could feel completely different.

I also want to point out that, in my opinion, Baby Gap sells the best jeans for toddlers. They are a little more expensive but well worth it. Jeans from less expensive stores don’t fit my toddler daughter nearly as well.

For my budget of $50, I bought 2 items (though could have gotten 3): the peacock long sleeve tee ($10) and the flared jeans ($30) for a total of $40. I could have squeezed another $10 t-shirt in there but I honestly wasn’t thrilled with any of them.  (Had I used a $150 budget just there, I would have bought the above 6 pieces and still been over by $10)

Quality: YAY
Style/ Selection: NAY
Price: OKAY
Online Experience: YAY

3. Target

back to school toddler clothes shopping

As popular as Target is in most of the country, the only location in Manhattan is at 117th St. I rarely go farther uptown than 23rd so I have actually never been inside it. But, since so many people speak so highly of their kids’ clothing selection, I decided to test out their store online.

Let me just say— the clothing may be cute but my online experience was HORRIFIC. With Old Navy and Baby Gap, I was able to keep my shopping cart for an unlimited amount of time but with Target, I left it idle for too long so it deleted my items. Even more frustrating, it waited until I had completed check out, given my credit card information, and hit “Place Order” before it thought to tell me. And it wasn’t just a re-login— all my items had disappeared. If it wasn’t for this post, I never would have gone back and did it over.

What made this re-selection even more annoying is that I found the site difficult to navigate. It took me a while to realize that preschool clothing is actually in “Baby” and not “Girls”. And the summer clothes are mixed in with fall items, the “tops” tab includes blouses, t-shirts, sweaters and cardigans, the play dresses are mixed in with the fancy dresses, so this all makes it challenging to find what you are looking for. Plus, the selection is so large that it’s impossible to see everything. On top of that, a large number of the items had “Image not available” boxes (at least five on each page) so I had no idea what I was missing out on. And there were tons of cute items pictured that were only available in-store or out-of-stock.

When I checked out for the second time, a window popped up that said I had “agreed to take” a survey. I had done no such thing but since I was so annoyed with the experience I decided to let them know. I went through a rather lengthy bunch of questions and answers, both multiple choice and fill-in the blank for more detailed comments, that spanned many pages. Then when I submitted my critique, to add insult to injury, a second window popped up telling me “our website survey is temporarily unavailable”. AAARGH!!!!!!

As far as the quality of the clothes, it varies depending on who makes them as Target sells many different brands. The style is cute but everything seems to have a few more bows/frills/flowers than the clothes I usually select for my daughter.

For my $50 budget, I got 4 items— the gold bubble skirt ($14), the ballerina long sleeve t-shirt ($8), the pink cardigan ($14), and the denim jeggings ($15) for a total of $51. I considered getting the green and pink dress but the site didn’t say what the fabric was (velvet? cotton? It’s a big difference!) so I passed. (Had I used a $150 budget just here, it would have bought the 11 pieces above).

Quality: OKAY
Style/Selection: OKAY
Price: YAY
Online Experience: NAY

4. Zara Kids

back to school toddler clothes shopping

The kid’s clothes at Zara are gorgeous but a little pricey for a preschooler. I always use Zara as the perfect store to pepper in a few special high-quality items, which I tend to gravitate towards in Mazzy’s closet, over and over again.

What surprised me most about my shopping comparison is that its prices aren’t that dissimilar to Baby Gap which I have always considered much more reasonable.

The online experience was okay. Nothing as bad as Target but not nearly as easy as Old Navy/Baby Gap. It has a more fashion-y vibe straight from logging in, with big pictures of child models and music, which can get a bit annoying if you just want to make a quick online purchase. Also, I was prompted to log-in again multiple times even though I hadn’t left my computer. Additionally, once you fill your cart, you can’t click on the items to see the details again, so you have to go back to the beginning and locate the item if you want a closer look.

For my $50 budget, I opted for one item— the floral dress ($43) because I totally fell in love with it. (A $150 budget used only at Zara Kids, would have bought me the 6 pieces above).

The dress arrived yesterday and Mazzy tried it on. Unfortunately, it is one of those dresses that is connected to a slip at the shoulders so it is difficult to put on. Mazzy adored it anyway and declared it “perfect.” Then she wanted to eat yogurt so I made her take it off which resulted in a power struggle. This is the problem when you mix nice clothes and toddlers.

Quality: YAY
Style/Selection: YAY
Price: NAY
Online Experience: OKAY

6. H&M Kids

back to school toddler clothes shopping

The most important thing to note about the H&M Kids online shopping experience is that it does not exist (Update: H&M Kids is now available online). You must go to the store to purchase. But if you find the time, it will be well worth it, I assure you.

H&M Kids mixes basics with some trendier items and everything is available for ridiculously low prices: $5 cotton play dresses, $10 cardigans in a myriad of colors, $15 dresses that feel just the right amount of special but you won’t feel the need to rip it off, should your child want to eat a carton of yogurt (ahem).

For my $50 budget, I got 5 items— the purple cotton playdress ($5), the green cardigan with the bird applique ($18), the cotton floral dress ($15), the birthday hat tee ($6), and the purple cardigan ($10) for a total of $54. (Had I used a $150 budget just here, I would have bought the 14 pieces above and gone over by $8).

Quality: YAY
Style/Selection: YAY
Price: YAY
Online Experience: Not applicable Now available.

I hope this was helpful and that you have a successful back-to-school (or first-time-to-school) shopping experience. Please report back! (And feel free to defend Target to the death— I know you want to.)

About the Author

Ilana Wiles

Ilana Wiles writes Mommy Shorts, a popular NYC humor blog geared towards new parents. In addition to blogging, Ilana has worked as a creative in advertisin...

Ilana Wiles writes Mommy Shorts, a popular NYC humor blog geared towards new parents. In addition to blogging, Ilana has worked as a creative in advertising for the past 15 years. She lives in the East Village of NYC with her husband, her two-year-old daughter and a rapidly growing pile of stuffed animals.

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  • Kari

    August 24, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Wow. I’m stunned at the amount of money you’re willing to drop on a preschool wardrobe…one that will be covered in crumbs, glue and snot before we even hit Christmas! I purchase almost all my children’s clothing second hand – get the same brands you mentioned, and get all 4 seasons of clothes INCLUDING shoes, boots, winter coats and snow pants for no more than $125 each child. The best part – if it gets stained, ripped or otherwise ruined, I have only a dollar or two invested and it’s easily able to be tossed in the rag bin.

    • Isabel


      August 24, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      Alpha Mom paid for all the clothes with its own money in order to test out the online shopping experiences and quality of the clothing at each of these stores.

    • Ilana WIles

      August 25, 2012 at 7:38 pm

      Normally, I would not spend this much money on clothes for my daughter, but as Isabel said, this was paid for by Alphamom so I could do a proper comparison.

      You could definitely buy an entire preschool wardrobe at H&M kids for $125 and call it a day! 

  • AmyRenee

    August 24, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    I’m with Kari on second hand clothes for as long as possible. In our area the local PTAs run “kiddie kloset” sales – it’s like a giant garage sale in a high school gym of just kids clothes and toys, it’s awesome! I certainly don’t complain if people buy my kids clothes new as a gift, but I would say 80% of my boys clothes are secondhand, and most of them look nearly new when I get them. My older son is very skinny, so I’ve learned that any time I see basic jeans or khakis with adjustable waists for under $5 to buy them, even if it’s 2 or 3 sizes up, he’ll wear them eventually.

  • Autumn

    August 24, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    My kiddo is a carters kid.  Just fits her the best, but we have had some luck at Target clearance for deals.  We also live 5 blocks from a carters store so we take our walk there once a month or so to stock up on clearance basics.  I think the key to a kid’s wardrobe is knowing what will fit him/her the best and works with other pieces you have.  I’m more willing to splurge on a cute outfit if I know I have pants/shirts that will mix with it so it doesn’t have to be a stand alone “outfit”

    Except for Christmas dresses. . .

  • HACB

    August 25, 2012 at 7:26 am

    I enjoyed reading this. I also agree with you about Old Navy and Gap. I buy lots of basics for my 3 year old daughter and 12 month old son at ON, but the Gap is hit-or-miss. (I also don’t like kids in animal prints… Or skulls.) I also love Mini Boden and Tea Collection. Both brands wear so well, get major points for style, and have easy to use websites (I almost always shop online.) They are a little more expensive than ON.

  • HACB

    August 25, 2012 at 7:29 am

    Also, I have to try Zara. Thanks for the review!

  • Ally

    August 25, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    I LOVE the Gap for my kids. I can usually get great clearance prices and you are right about the quality of the jeans. I also like Gymboree. Their prices are typically higher, but we live near an outlet and can get good prices there. 

  • Grammy

    August 25, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Even though I live where many of these stores are available so I could walk-in if I wanted to, I’m old and tired and I do my shopping online when I’m buying from somewhere other than local mom ‘n pop stores (which I try to do as often as possible).

    I buy a lot of things for my grandson from Old Navy and Gap online, and agree with your assessment of the online experience — good navigation and availability and plenty of “sale” items. Pretty consistent quality, too.

    Trouble with Target online is that they seriously don’t know how to handle ANYTHING online. Their shopping is difficult to navigate in many cases, and customer service is just non-existent. Any time I’ve tried to order a gift for someone who has registered (either wedding or baby shower) at Target, it’s a nightmare. Everything about the experience is bad, and then you can’t track delivery — when I order an expensive gift I want to know that it got delivered even if the bride/new mother doesn’t mind her manners and let me know when it’s received (or, more important, the recipient has perfectly good manners but didn’t receive my gift!). Target has some cute things at good prices, but they lose my business because it’s not worth the headache to shop online.

    • Ilana WIles

      August 25, 2012 at 7:25 pm

      We usually take a trip to the GAP outlet in Riverhead twice a year— we’ve had great luck there. And I often like the selection better than the stuff at the regular store— less fussy somehow. And of course, cheaper!

  • IrishCream

    August 25, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Target online is awful. If you’re on the west side of Manhattan, the 225th Street Target is really easy to get to – it’s the first Bronx stop off the 1 train. I don’t really like their clothing selection for girls, but they’re a good place to pick up sippy cups, Medela pumping gear, and nursing tanks. I am dying over the Mini Boden catalog, but it’s just too pricey for me, even though their quality and service are fantastic. I’m waiting for their fall stuff to go on sale so I can buy some pieces one size up to save for next year.

    • ilana WIles

      August 25, 2012 at 7:27 pm

      I was really surprised with how bad Target was online. You would think with a major retailer like Target, they would have that stuff down!

      Unfortunately, I live in the East Village so it would be quite a trip for me. Will check out Mini Boden though!

      • Kelley Weiser

        September 9, 2012 at 8:46 am

        FOR REAL. Get it together guys. Some stoner has that job FOR SURE.

  • Susan:)

    August 26, 2012 at 12:11 am

    I love Target and Old Navy for kids clothes, but I’ve never shopped either online. The stores are readily available here. I almost always buy on sale and I usually like the styles at both stores. Occasionally, I will browse Gap Kids, Gymboree, and A Children’s Place as they often have cute things. But I think the prices are too high so I rarely buy there unless it’s a really good sale price. Walmart also has cute things for super cheap, although their quality has declined in the past few years.

  • El

    August 27, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Could someone please do this for boys too? I know there aren’t as many clothing options for boys out there (which bothers me, since I am the mother of 2 boys), but it would be helpful to see this for boys.

    • Isabel


      August 27, 2012 at 10:54 am

      Thanks for the feedback and I happy to hear that you found it helpful. We looked at the following criteria of the clothes and stores: quality, style/selection, price, and online experience. Other than style/selection, we wouldn’t gain any additional knowledge by doing this exercise for boys. Quality, price and online experience hold the same for boys’ clothing. And, style/selection is the most subjective of the criteria we measured. 🙂

  • Crystal

    August 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    I agree with El, the boys need some love in the clothing department in general. Girls clothes are just way cutier in every aspect.

    • Isabel


      August 27, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      I don’t disagree that boys need more love in the clothing dept. Girls’ clothing is cuter. (And, that goes for the women’s clothing dept too.)

  • Marinka

    September 1, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Really, really interesting. And OMG, how gorgeous are clothes for girls?! I miss shopping for my now teen daughter.  

    I’ve always found that Old Navy is the best deal. I don’t love the quality always, but by the time the clothes got trashed, they grew them out anyway.

    Fun post!

  • Callon

    September 1, 2012 at 10:17 am

    I feel the same way about Gap, hit and miss based on the current “collections”. I just ordered items from Zara and Mini Biden- could not resist! I live in Minneapolis, home of Target Corp, so I shop at Target all the time. Their online site has too much going on! The one positive, if you use your Target Red Card you save 5%, get free shipping, and can return most items in-store.

  • CK

    September 1, 2012 at 10:28 am

    If I were asked to review my shopping experience, I would have likely given the same review (although Target is not available where I live). I do almost all my shopping online as I fiind the actual stores are so disorganized (especially Old Navy). The Gap and Old Navy have been my go to store for the last two years, although like your review, The Gap can be a hit and miss in terms of style (but that seems to also be threir problem on the adult side, along Banana Republic).

  • Gayle

    September 1, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Very helpful! Thanks for the comparisons.

  • Donna

    September 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Ilana, you could always go to the Target in Brooklyn (Atlantic Terminal). Probably an easier trek from the East Village. I know, it’s BROOKLYN, but just in case… 😛

    Thanks for the comparisons! Saving me a trip to Zara. Love their clothes but can’t really shell out for the munchkin. I am liking Tea Collection, though!

  • jamietee

    September 4, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    I agree about Target and really hope they get a clue and shape up their online shopping experience. And the Atlantic Terminal location would probably be easier for you to get to that 125th. But it’s in BROOKLYN (insert sarcastic spooky noise) 😛
    Thanks for the post, though. I really enjoyed it. I’d like to add that Zara sizing can be all over the place: I’ve been given 2T’s that would be baggy on a four year old, and a 3month boys shirt that shrunk down to newborn size after washing.
    H&M is also great for socks. Great enough that I go there just for socks. Both girl and boy.

  • allison

    September 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    We don’t tend to have to buy much for our daughter as we’re lucky to get a lot of hand-me-downs, but I can’t resist buying her some new stuff from H&M. I find their clothes to be the cutest and cheapest, generally.

    For the record, I think their boy stuff is pretty adorable too, and tend to find their stuff less annoyingly over the top gendered. Ok for sure they have a boys section and a girls section, but I find a lot of the stuff in the boy section is fine for a girl (i.e. not a lot of ‘i’m a big boy’ type stuff), and while a lot of the girl stuff is definitely GIRLY, there is some stuff there I think would be fine for a boy (who is into bright colours).

    • Isabel


      September 5, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      Thank you for this feedback on H&M. I’m a fan, as well, of stores that have unisex clothing for kids.

  • KE

    September 6, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    I am a devoted Target fan, I shop in the stores all the time, but their website is HORRIBLE. It has got to be the absolute worst shopping site in existence. It has been terrible for years and I continue to be amazed that they have done nothing to improve it.

  • Stephanie

    September 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    We have all of these stores (except H&M) nearby. ON has the best selection for my 3 year old daughter. I also recommend Kohl’s – they have great deals and are a great place to get basics like shirts and leggings. We also have a younger daughter (6 months old) who will (and has been) getting most of our older daughter’s clothes. ON sweaters and cardigans hold up really well. I prefer the Gap for jeans.

  • Kelley Weiser

    September 9, 2012 at 8:43 am

    I totally agree with you about Target’s website…WTF? is up with them, they get so many things right!! I like to get a few basics at every season mostly at Target or ON (Gap just pisses me off with their stupid designs and ridic prices, but I do like their jeans) and I’m a thriftaholic so I am on the hunt for a few weeks to grab up the goods at local thrift stores and consignment shops. I so wish I had an H&M closer I have a friend who lives near one and grabs stuff for me sometimes. They have great prices and mostly really unique stuff. This was awesome, great job!

  • Sari Nickelsburg

    September 10, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Great breakdown! Thanks Ilana. Ditto to the YAY on Old Navy which is my go-to for bulk shopping mostly because their clothes are the right fit for my three year old. Children’s Place has a great selection for boys (and girls). Unfortunately, they’re cut too wide for Lucas; Baby GAP is too narrow. Also, online is everything to me as a working city mom. The thought of wasting a Saturday or Sunday shopping store-to-store is enough to make me reach for a mood stabilizer. We only do that for shoes.

  • Rockabyebye

    June 12, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    I’ve had really good luck at Carter’s/OshKosh. $6 flat rate shipping and you can use one cart for both. I love the Collections so you know what will mix and match, they have great clearance sales, you can easiily find online coupon codes, tracking shipments is easy and they have great customer service.

  • Alisha

    September 26, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    Surprised that you didn’t have gymboree listed! Wonderful place to shop and with gymbucks and coupons you can get pretty great deals even though at first glance it seems a bit pricy. I ham horrible at putting things together also so the fact that you can shop by outfit is a plus also. Okay, off to look at a few of the stores you listed that I haven’t heard of. Thanks for the info! Very helpful 🙂

  • Arianna

    September 5, 2015 at 11:39 am

    Target quality has declined significantly in the past year, in my opinion. I haven’t bought any school clothes this season from Target.

    My daughter is too slim or petite for Gap, Gymboree, Old Navy, etc. Who has the slimmest cuts? I haven’t tried H&M, but this post has sold me on at least trying. Carter is just too babyish beyond a certain age, even if it fits. Also, I can’t stand all the black, dark and dreary or leopard prints out. Who is wearing this stuff?